One of the best parts of my job with the Open Spaces Society is visiting commons with land managers who wish to consult us about what they hope to achieve.
I was pleased to be invited by Leigh Wallace of Hart District Council and Mike Coates of the RSPB to visit Hazeley Heath in north-east Hampshire in May. The two organisations between them own most of the heath. This is classified as a Special Protection Area (SPA), under the European Birds Directive because it has breeding nightjar, woodlark and Dartford warbler. It forms part of the Thames Basin Heaths. The public has the right to walk and ride over the whole area.
I last visited in 2007 when Hart District (which was working with Hampshire County Council and other members of the Hazeley Heath interim management committee) wanted to put up temporary fencing to test the effect of grazing on the common. The fencing received ministerial consent for five years. The trial provided some useful information and showed that grazing was effective, especially on the wetter areas, for encouraging the regeneration of heathland vegetation.
The landowners are now consulting on the next phase of management; they appreciate the sensitivities of fencing and are investigating the use of ‘invisible‘ fencing as part of their information gathering.
It was good to visit in May when there were birds around. I arrived early for a walk over the heath in glorious sunshine. I was pleased to hear, then see, a garden warbler.
I returned to the meeting point and asked Mike Coates to find me a Dartford warbler, tree pipit and woodlark—no pressure!
We walked over the heath and close to where I had seen the garden warbler, which was still singing, Mike stopped. We heard the tiny song of the Dartford warbler in a dense patch of gorse, rather like a whitethroat but bouncier. We caught a fleeting glimpse of one flying across the gorse. The gorse had all been destroyed in a fire in 2010 and so this gorse was six years old and, Mike said, now ideal for Darties.
Further on, we heard a tree pipit’s distinctive song. Near the highest point of the common we had a fine view of one singing at the top of the tree followed by the parachuting flight-song. You can see a short video here.
So Mike found me two out of three of my hoped-for birds, which was very satisfactory.
The common lies to the south-west of the former Bramshill police college which was housed in Bramshill House, sited imposingly on the top of a hill. It was built in 1605-12. Pevsner says that ‘It is one of the largest Jacobean houses. It is also distinguished by a plan quite exceptional in an age of standard plans’. The house is listed grade I and the park is grade II*.
The owners, City & Country Bramshill Ltd, intend to build nearly 300 houses here and to convert the house into residential properties.
As some of the development would be within 400 metres of the SPA, it should not go ahead at all, since residential development is not allowed within 400 metres of an SPA. For that part of the development which is between 400 metres and five kilometres, the developers must provide Suitable Alternative Green Space (SANG). It is unlikely that the land they are offering will be considered adequate to compensate for the additional recreation pressure which will be placed on the unique SPA habitat.
Let’s hope that SANG rules hold firm in the face of these landgrabbers, the development within 400 metres is outlawed, and the proximity of Hazeley Heath common SPA prevents this majestic house and park from being sacrificed.
It is encouraging that Hazeley Heath is owned by Hart and the RSPB; they are exceptionally good landowners and both have plenty of experience of managing commons.
This common has a distinguished history: in 1990 it was the subject of a seminal case in the House of Lords (Hampshire County Council v Milburn and others  AC325); their lordships opined on the meaning of ‘of’ in the definition of ‘waste of the manor’. They upheld Hampshire County Council’s refusal to deregister the land, finding that, although it had no common rights, it was still common land as waste of the manor. This decision prevented many other commons from being removed from the register.